You. You are a frivolous person. A frivolous person with frivolous thoughts that spin and cartwheel on the front lawn of your mind. Legs flinging, knees bent, your thoughts less perfect with each rotation. Less complete and full.
This gravel is onto you. It’s not stupid. It sees your nerves as easily as if they were strung across this road at foot-tripping, shin height. That armadillo husk, cracked and desiccated, melon-ball empty like some hollowed-out canoe—it is onto you. It mocks you. You too, it says, shall be a hollowed out shell at the end. Consider this a warning.
You. You are a frivolous person. There is no place for frivolous at the Dirty Kanza.
* * *
When I arrive at Sunflower Outdoor & Bike in Lawrence, Kansas, on Wednesday, I already know there’s a good chance that my Crux smells like rotten fish. The Langster has shown me a text from Dan telling me of this strange development; so I know it’s already caused a…stink. I’m so very sorry for that pun. But not really.
There are many screwed up noses as the story is relayed to me. Many looks of ‘oh, so you’re the one that delivered the stench of Satan’s fish tank to our place of work.’ I laugh it off in a casual way, but am sheepishly ashamed. It’s not the kind of first impression a girl wants to make.
I stand with it in the service area, listening as Collin tells me of the repeated cleanings to vanquish the smell. I bring my nose hesitantly toward the handlebars while he speaks, and I take a mighty whiff of the bar tape. Can’t smell anything.
It’s comical, really. A bike in a box, shipped next to what can only have been an order of raw fish that decided to ooze and leak and dribble on the eager cardboard of said box. Raw fish that we can only surmise was bound for a restaurant on a mission to send all its diners to the ER for an enthusiastic stomach pump.
But I digress. The smell is not the only thing that’s fishy.
“I’m not really happy with how it’s shifting,” says Collin, and I nod. He has such a serious and professional look on his face that I’m suddenly thrown into a moment of self-doubt. I love bikes, but I treat bikes badly. This is not news. But that’s also not the issue. That’s not what sends the self-doubt jangling down the hallways of my confidence cathedral.
The serious expression on Collin’s face is a siren blaring a stern warning. A warning that is megaphoned straight into the earholes of my head to reverberate in my skull. Siren says: If your bike is not 100% ready for the Dirty Kanza, perhaps you, ma’am, are not ready for the Dirty Kanza? How’s that grab ya?
It grabs me firmly.
Later that afternoon, we roll out for a shakedown ride, The Langster, Dan, and I. Before we’re even onto that first stretch of gravel on the levee, I shift and the chain yawns and stretches its lubricated arms right off the side of the chainring to limply drape, string-of-pearls-like, on the unwilling neck of the crank and pedal.
‘Too tentative with the shift, you idiot,’ I think. ‘This is not a negotiation. This is a gear change. Why do you suck so much at this?’
I stop. Reach down and put the chain on. Catch up with the boys. Together, we ride and chat and ride.
The reigning King of Kanza and Don are with me, and not. And with me and not. From time-to-time they power ahead to test their legs and I happily hang back. Not because I’m giving them adequate bromance room, but because it’s two days before the Kanza and I don’t want to ride that fast. I’m not going to be sucked into riding that fast. This is not my first rodeo. Well…it is my first Kansas rodeo, but you’re picking at lint here. The pace I’ve found is good, so I feel good. As long as I can see where they turn, I’m perfectly content back here. Shifting. Being me.
Ahead, the sky is dark and brooding. There’s a storm coming, an afternoon brew. Its appearance reminds me of summer in Australia, the smell of it, the breeze whipping up, the dark and ominous roof to the afternoon. The ride is cut short and we turn away from the threat.
Back in my room I peel a glove off just as the sky empties its stomach contents to the earth below. We are two days from the Kanza. Please don’t let it rain. Please. Just please.
Next day, and adjustments are made to the Crux. Screws are turned. Yaws tweaked.
“I’m still not happy,” says Collin.
Shakedown ride two, the shop ride with Reba, sees me get stuck in the small chainring for the final 5 miles and I am unsurprisingly dropped by the group. It probably would’ve happened anyway. My confidence once again evaporates into the thick Kansas air.
Tweaks. And now, a new chain.
Mini-final-shakedown three, a solo spin on Friday before we leave Lawrence and Fish Bike won’t shift in the front again and I’m letting the whole side down. I suck. Dan swings by the hotel to grab the bike from me when I’m done. We’re supposed to leave town by noon. There is no time for this. I’m beginning to fret, but hopefully I’m hiding it like a total pro.
“We’ll fix it,” says Dan, as he loads it onto his car. He says it calmly and firmly and confidently and I believe him. I believe him. I have to believe. He is my Obi Wan. He is my only hope.
And that, dear readers, is how end I up with the luckiest good luck charm, awesome omen bike in the 2014 Dirty Kanza 200.
A bike. A fish bike equipped with the Queen of Pain’s 2013 Kanza winning tires—oh, I’m sorry, didn’t I mention that?—and Dan Hughes’ 2013 Kanza winning 50/34 chainrings.
I ride the Fish Bike a few blocks out and back to the shop prior to loading it on the car for the trip to Emporia. It shifts like a sweet little dream about kittens riding unicorns saving the world.
“Just try not to use the little ring,” Dan says. “I’m trying to keep it pristine and un-used.”
* * *
You. You are a fraud. You lie and you cheat and you pretend you are better at this than you are. Look at you. You’re more suited to sitting in dark rooms with books and flashlights and stupid dreams that will never happen. You can’t do this. This is not you.
All these riders, passing and dropping back, shoaling and swarming and disappearing in mirages of dust and gravel are of the real, of the true, of the belonging out here. They will discover your ruse shortly and then it will be over.
You. You are a fraud. Your deception will be all over the 9 o’clock news.
* * *
In my mind’s eye, I’ve decided that I shall finish in 15 hours. In 15 hours I will be right back here at the start, rolling across the finish line having done my best, ridden my hardest, and been the best version of me that I can be. I have said it and so it shall be. This place, where I’m standing now, this is the place I will roll over in 15 hours to put a hat on the head of this day and say ‘well, don’t you look sexy.’
It’s not quite light yet, but it’s coming soon. In the start corral, like horses eager to get out the gate, we wait. Feet pawing the ground, steam from our nostrils. There is chatter and laughter that rises up into the still morning air, like starlings spooked from a barn.
There is no girl on roller skates holding up a 15-hour sign, so I plant myself squarely between the 14 and 16. There is no one near me and I feel somewhat isolated. People seem to cluster together in groups. Friends. Kits of a certain color line up together. And me. There. I spend my time visually inspecting the bikes around me. Compare setups. Judge against my own.
I’ve opted for three water bottles (one in my jersey pocket), a saddlebag with tubes and flat fixing paraphernalia, and a handlebar feed bag, and that’s it. I was originally going to run my non-patented route holder on my forearm, with the special shrunken down versions of the turn-by-turn sheets I’d made, but some idiot had left those in Santa Cruz. *whistles* Fortunately, Collin has given each of us a laminated version, to go along with our Garmin course if we need it. So, that’s what I have.
A man positions himself next to me, and his wife and kids gather around. Their excited chatter is invigorating. Uplifting. Infectious. His bike is dialed, his support is ready, and he is pumped. There’s so much pride rolling off his family, so much excitement, I’m pushed a little sideways by it. That, or I’m making an awkward and twisted body attempt not to end up in his selfie.
There are hugs and kisses and good lucks and keep the rubber side downs, and then everyone not riding gets out of the chute.
In those final seconds to the start gun, everyone is alone. Me. This guy next to me. The Langster. Dan. Rebecca. All of us. Alone with our thoughts. Our fears. Anticipation. But we can only be what we can be so let’s be that. For today. Let’s just be that.
And then we roll.
The gravel comes soon enough and there’s jostling and insanity and obvious paths within the gravel to take, and then the inevitable jack rabbiting across the sea of instability to get a better train, to get a better line, to not lose touch with the fast ones.
Flats happen quickly, but not to me. Sketchy behavior happens often, and tires wash out and people handle their shit and some looks are exchanged and insanity and crazy and get on a good wheel and just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The great Oz has spoken!
Some corners are loose. Some straights are looser. There is conversation and no conversation. Early hydration. Salt tablets. The morning is cool.
The crowd thins out.
Now it has really begun.
* * *
You. You are insignificant. You are a fleck of useless lint in the bellybutton of this magnificent landscape. A blot of churning useless energy attempting to exert your pathetic dominance on this, a perfect world. Look at you. See yourself as it sees you. A filthy, grimy, grunting mess of sunburn and sweat.
You are nothing to this day. The wind can push you in any direction it wants, the road can be there and not there and good and bad on a whim. Each grinding hill, each loose gravel descent, each rocky shelf that pokes up to punish your tires and body and hands and head through shuddering force you feel right to the back of your eyeballs, is a sermon from the unforgiving and pristine pulpit of this world.
You. You are insignificant. You are not wanted here. You should just quit while you’re behind.
* * *
One of my biggest fears was that it would rain. I had read about the year with the rain and the glue road and it freaked me out. Please don’t let it rain. That was my only prayer.
I’m supremely grateful that it’s not raining when I get to the section about 20-25 miles in that’s a bit damp and sticky. Not so sticky that it’s non-negotiable, but it’s blacker dirt and slippery in places and I’m grateful that the groups have thinned and I’m basically free to choose good lines and not endanger anyone.
A man in a skinsuit. I recognize the pattern of it and his helmet and a name takes flight across the drive-in screen of my brain. Neil Shirley. He’s crouched on the side of the road, Crux on its side. He looks to be fiddling with the rear derailleur.
Huh. This race. This race is evidently just as much about luck as it is ability. I might be ok! Since, you know. I have the luck with the good omen tires and the chainrings and such.
I continue on. See cows in the distance, in a standoff with a Dirty Kanza green shirt marshal.
“Hope we make it through there before those cows stop us,” someone says, and I laugh. Hit the descent and power on down.
A rider lays prone towards the bottom and off to the side of the road, blood washed upon his face. Others are gathered around, along with what I assume is medical help.
Luck. This is all luck. And this has barely begun.
Low water crossing. I shoulder the fish bike and begin to pick my way across, though I can’t see anything beneath my feet to indicate if this is just a rock bed or cement-y. There is a constant clod-splash of other riders negotiating the crossing beside me. I veer to the left.
“Stay toward the right-side, it’s easier,” says a man standing in the creek and I think how it would’ve been nice if he’d said that before I’d veered over here. But never mind. The water is warmer than I thought it’d be, but it’s nice nonetheless. There’s a bit of a muddy negotiation to get out, but I run up a bit further and jump back on. I’m lying of course. I don’t run, I trudge.
There are more watery crossings, but not as girthy as that one. Just narrow, shallow water, flowing across dusty roads. Most with hidden, uneven rocky bottoms to test my handling skills. I experiment with different speeds when tackling them. One so slow I nearly lose it, one so fast the water explodes like a watermelon dropped from a balcony on unsuspecting concrete. I am soaked instantly. My white kit is turning a convincing reddish brown.
I roll through the first checkpoint feeling pretty spry and lively. Due to my yellow wristband, I’m directed down a street filled with yellow zone support vehicles. All the way down, I go. Searching, searching. I see people reclined in folding chairs, sitting at the backs of their cars, hatches open and coolers inside. Some look expectantly up the street to new riders coming in, others are already in the process of getting their rider back out there. At the last support car in the row, I turn around and go back, confused. There is no Support Crew for Hire down here.
“What color are you?” asks a lady in a lawn chair.
“Oh, you’re in the right place then.”
Evidently, not. She asks me what the car looks like and I have no idea. I tell her it’s the support crew for hire.
“Oh! That’s right there in the Chamois Butt’r tent!”
I can’t help but note that it’s not in the yellow zone, but no matter. Time. It is a wasting. I crouch on the ground and restock my food and refill my bottles with mystical liquids and before long, am back out there. Back out and at it.
The roads are manageable and miles tick by. Green, green, green. A thick and toasty green blanket hugs these hills, split only by a gravel road thread that stretches out for miles ahead. Downhill, uphill. On and on and on. I spend many furtive miles assessing upcoming culverts and scrub and laneways with a goal to find an avenue of escape to, you know, find a quiet location in which to contemplate the world in reflective privacy. Is this too much code? I need to find a place to pee. I finally succeed.
Picking my way through a stand of shady trees and cowpat landmines to get back to the fish bike by the side of the road, I overhear a passing rider say to his friend that this is the toughest section. afterwards
My ears perk up.
If this is the toughest section, I have this NAILED. Get past this, and it’s a cakewalk for the next 100. Well. That’s what I’m going to tell myself from this point onward.
About 15 miles from the second rest stop in Cassoday, I lean down a bit to listen to my bike. There’s been a squeak for a while now and the fact that I can hear it over the music I’m listening to makes me think it’s quite loud.
It’s coming from the front wheel. Hub? Rotor? I don’t know, but I get off and spin it. No noise. No rotor rub. Shrug. Well, it seems to just be a noise. It’s not slowing me down at all, and it’s taken a lot of abuse so far, what with water crossings and all the dust. I put my earbuds back in and choose to ignore it.
A bit later and there’s something else. A clicking sound. Repetitive and metronomic. This sound has a rhythm and I can’t work out how to make it go away. More than hearing it, I can feel it. I can feel it through the sole of my left foot. Is it my cleat? My pedal? Is it going to disintegrate before I finish this?
Luck. Don’t fail me now.
At the second rest stop, I roll in and attempt to put my rest stop plan in action. Ten minutes I’ve told myself. Ten minutes maximum at each stop. Leave as soon as you’re ready.
“I’m so sorry, we’re out of water,” says the lady at the back of the pickup. She’s got the lid of the cooler off. “Someone’s gone to get some more. Should be five minutes.”
This is an unexpected development and I’m a little taken aback by it. But I make a decision to not freak out. To not overreact. She asks if I’d like some ice while I wait and it’s the silver lining to this unfortunate cloud. She fills my insulated bottle with ice and I chew on a big chunk while I wander back to my bike. Fill the bottles with OSMO powder in preparation of the water’s arrival, and restock my nutrition.
There are portaloos here, so I dawdle on over just to kill some time. When I emerge and can breathe again, there’s still no sign of the water. I calmly repack the drop bag with my trash from the previous leg and hand it back. I sit on the grass. Not much else to do.
The water shows up. It flows fast and cold and it’s not too long before I’m back out on the road. In the back of my mind a thought is waving its hand.
Wouldn’t it be funny if you missed beating the sun by the length of time you lost here?
Hmm. It’s best to prepare myself for that eventuality now. To practice how calm and unflustered I will be.
Because this is luck. This is all luck. And beating the sun isn’t your goal anyway, remember. It isn’t. Unless it looks close, at which point it most certain will be.
* * *
You. You are fragile. As delicate as a first-time playwright about to open the arts section and reveal that first review. You flinch and flounder, a fish on the dock. A moth on a light bulb. Your wings are flossy and weak.
This rude sensitivity will unravel your bravery sweater in a long 200-mile line of dropped stitches and too-elaborate patterns. The first blush of failure is evident to all. The relentless hills that continue to rise to meet you, that elusive shade that is an ever moving target.
You. You are fragile. Best get off the mantle now, lest you smash your snow globe to the floor of the universe.
* * *
The road is long and straight and kinda lovely. Steady paths through gravel, there is an ebb and flow of riders. I am passed, I pass others. If the rest of the ride is like this, on roads like this, then I am golden. I have the head of this ride in a duffle bag.
We turn left. Onto a road that looks as though they’ve thrown a blade on the front of a vehicle and given it a bit of a hit to tidy it up a smidge. It’s rough and, to put it bluntly, a total shit sandwich. At one point, I have to ride on a barely-there trail through some grass to work my way around a culvert that’s washed away.
But I did pass a guy taking that route. Passed him because he’d chose to ride right up to it and walk around right there. I feel bad. For a second.
I want to eat something different. I’m so sick of shot bloks and salty caramel GUs (though that is the best flavor ever invented), so I pull a banana from my back pocket, peel it halfway down its body and take a hot bite. A few seconds later, I hit a bump and three quarters of what’s left breaks off and sails sadly to the ground. It is a devastating moment, and I stare blankly at the nub of what’s left in my hand.
Pushing the disappointment down, down very very deeply, I journey on.
I jump onto cattle guards to avoid the pinch flat-inducing cement drop-offs. I hear Dan and Reba in my head saying to pedal at minimum the last third of descents and not coast. I get extremely good at bombing downhill and finding good lines. Earlier in the day, I was braking more, attempting to be gentle and smart. Now I’m being smart by jumping and flying over as much of this downhill bullshit as I can, while still picking good lines and avoiding those riders who are more gingerly making their way down.
Rocks like baseballs in creek beds, a thin track to try hit and fly through. Riders on the other side fixing flats. I make it through this one. I shall make it through the next. Can that be defined as gravel? Seriously. Baseball-sized.
I convince myself that my tires are magic tires. That they’re possessed by a spirit that makes them invincible. Impervious to flinty rocks. Staunch against a mean old road. I tell myself this bike is blessed. That it is the Excalibur held aloft by some watery tart and I am beholden to ride it until it squeals for mercy.
There is an amazing stretch of flow and flow and flow and I fly. Do I have a tailwind? A Chamois Butt’r rider passes and turns and says something that I don’t hear through my music. He is smiling at me. I assume this a verbal equivalent of a thumbs up. Or maybe has mistaken me for another.
I choose the former. I am buoyed by his grin.
This is a wonderful plateau. The rejuvenator, the instiller of life, the bold, the true. I get cocky and confident.
And then. I run out of water.
Well, not quite. The panic is not at code red yet, but I look at the half bottle I have left and calculate the rate at which I’m permitted to drink it if I want it to last. 15 miles or so to go, I guess, and it’s hot and I wonder if it’s better to just drink and suffer through the rest of it, or sip and have little bits of moisture all the way to the stop.
My throat is so dry at times, and I want to just hold that spout to my mouth and drink it down, down, down. With seven miles to go, I cave and gulp the whole lot with the sincere hope that they’re not out of water at the next check point. Because I’m going to need to drink immediately.
I needn’t have worried. Rolling over the timing mat I spot the tent to my left and roll up to it. Park my bike against a tree and get my bag.
“What can I do for you?” asks a kind voice that appears from nowhere behind me.
“Fill your bottles?”
I explain in broken and confused words (though sentences are perfectly formed in my head, so I’m not sure what’s happening between them forming and me speaking), that I’m really thirsty. That I just need a bottle filled with water. Just water. That’s all I want right now.
Happy with a task, she quickly returns with it and I drain the entire thing. I can’t stop.
Opening my bag, I find my beef jerky. But there’s no coke and I’m a little bummed. I forgot to grab it off Dan and Collin to put in my bag last night, but it would’ve been hotter than tar anyway as there’s no cooler here. I set about mounting my light, and plug the portable charger into my Garmin to get the juice flowing.
Swap out gels and bloks, decide that the jerky won’t fit in the bag with the charger in there as well so I won’t be taking it. Scoff down a couple of strips. I reach into the bag for my secret snickers stash and am greeted by a small bag of liquid that suggests the peanuts and chocolate are having quite an intimate little bath together in the heat. I leave it in the bag.
As I roll out and to the edge of the checkpoint, the Garmin beeps and I look down.
It warns me that it’s going to turn off in about 15 seconds. It asks me if I’m ok with that. If I think it should shut down?
There’s an X button for NO, and a check mark for YES.
I hit yes.
The Garmin shuts down.
My mouth drops open and the confusion cloud clears. I lose the first 150 miles of the Dirty Kanza forever.
Stunned, I unclip my left foot and stop.
No, no, no, no, no.
I turn it back on. The ride is gone. Eh, I think. It’s probably saved it. I mean, why would it not? Technology could never be so cruel as to rob me of the eventual Strava data that will get me my kudos and make me look badass and forever be data-evidenced that I did it. That I… that I did the Dirty Kanza from start to finish. That data. It’s still there. It has to be. Somewhere.
So I load the DK200 course again, hit start, and push off with my mileage reading at zero.
It is all right. It will be all right.
Because I am lucky. I am the luckiest princess at the Kanza, goddamnit!
* * *
You. You are stubborn. You are pigheaded and thick and your brain is empty when it should be full. You are ignoring what you should pay attention to most and this road, this heat, this endless run of white dust and black holes is trying to catch your attention and yet you continue to ignore it.
A twiddle-headed ninny, blind to the truth, that’s what you are. The heat of the day is falling, falling, falling on you, and the blanket of its love is thick and oppressive and it tangles in your arms and legs and slips its slick hand across the nape of your neck and tries to push your damn face into the damn dirt and all you do is make circles with your feet and grind on like the dumbest dolt who ever rode the earth.
You. You are stubborn. And it’s going to save you.
* * *
My left foot is killing me. It has a volcanic heat to it and an ache that radiates from my little piggy toe to wrap across and under to where it meets the pedal. I’ve never worn these MTB shoes for 15 hours before. These findings would be interesting if they weren’t so painful.
My hands. They’d been the useless extremities I’d been worried about. Particularly the left one which I’d mercilessly beaten to a pulp of ulnar nerve numbfekery just one year ago, almost to the day. But the foot has been holding pocket aces this whole time, it seems. Stealing the damn pain pot winnings from right off the table.
To stand and climb is a lesson in pain ignorance.
To stand and descend yields much the same result.
Could it be, think I, that the clicking sound emanating from the pedal region has been plucking that foot like a stand up double bass string for oh, I dunno, 150 miles or so? The pain is like a shitty echo into a canyon. Just keeps hello-ello-ello-lo-lo-lo-ing for as long as I keep pedal-edal-edal-dall-ing.
Ah, cork it.
Up. Down. Straight. Up. Down. Straight.
Hill after mindless hill and the earth is relentless in its ability to reach into my brain and poke the motivation nubbin with its grubby little finger. My headphones have been in my ears for hours with no music playing and I haven’t noticed until now. I rip them out and stuff them down the front of my jersey.
I tear the head off a hot, Salty Caramel GU and squeeze it into my unwilling mouth. Roll it around in there like it’s some kind of fine electrolyte wine.
“A local told me there’s not many hills left,” a guy says, passing me convincingly as we both climb the latest small hill. I don’t manage to articulate much of anything in return. Thoughts are just not traveling down the speaking track, so I grunt an acknowledgment that may have been a word and just grumble up the hill. Pedal down the next. Up again.
Occasionally I see people up ahead on a hill, walking their bikes in the heat up these short tests of patience. Dark camelbak-ed specks on whitish gravel climbs, pushing and toiling their way along.
At the top of this one, I see a tree, small and furtive, trying not to get noticed. I see the form of a rider beneath it, sitting in the small arc of its shade, helmet off and staring at the dirt he’s sitting in. Earlier, I’d seen a guy lying in the grass beside the road, bike on its side next to him. A sunbather in the depths of Kansas, eyes closed, hands folded on his chest.
The heat is taking roll call. I seem to have a hall pass, even if my energy is fading rather fast.
A girl flies by me in a flurry of ‘race the sun’ determination. We’ve gone back and forth a couple of times during the course of this ride and I envy her power, her pick up and go-edness, as she rides away from me. She is going to do it, she is going to beat the sun, of that I have no doubt.
I feel good. I feel bad. I feel good. I feel bad. I’m going to beat my goal! I’m not going to beat my goal. I’m going to beat my goal! I’m not.
Water. I’m almost out of hydration again and I tell myself that it’s probably ok. It will probably cool down and I’ll feel less desperate for it. But I am desperate for it now. I’m calculating how I’m going to stretch out what I have.
And while we’re on the subject of what I’m sick of, I’m sick of looking down. The theatre screen laid out a few feet in front of my bike is playing a shitty movie and I want to throw popcorn at the screen and yell ‘booooo!’ I’m sick of looking down. Sick of the rocks and the dirt and the dirty rocks with the dirt. I guess it means my neck is tired. That right in front of me is the least offensive to my shoulders. No more head-held-high rider. I believe this is called assuming the death march position?
If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m unraveling. Right in front of you. I don’t feel ill from the heat, nor is there the threat of me not finishing. I know I’ll finish. I feel fine, but I’ve simply lost the ability to grind. To grit my teeth and go harder. To push. Now I’m just doing it. Turning pages of some invisible suffer book to get to The End.
Mile by mile by mile. Crank turn by crank turn, pedal click by wheel squeak.
Suddenly, I stop my hydration calculations.
These kids by the road up ahead with a cooler full of water bottles are not a mirage. A girl runs across to the other side of the road in anticipation of my arrival, and a group of them urge me to take a bottle. Angels. They are angels and the church of Kanza has many pews and collection plates and they’re passed around and here am I, the beneficiary.
I grab the bottle with a gratefully whispered ‘thanks’ and ride on.
“That one was a girl!” says a woman from a lawn chair and the girls squeal and cheer.
“Yay, girls!” they yell.
Yay girls indeed.
I rip the lid off the bottle and drink it all in one go. It’s a smallish bottle, so when I’m done, I recap it and stuff it in my jersey. If there’s one thing there’s enough of on these back roads today, it’s bottles. They’ve been a kind of Kanza confetti on the really rough stuff.
The water was tasty, but it’s still not enough and I’m thirsty for something cold. To take my mind off it, I watch the ball of the sun dip lower and lower and although not dark enough for the light yet, it’s obvious all hopes of me making it to the finish before sunset are dashed. I’d have to do about 12 miles in 20 minutes. Yeah, that’s not going to happen.
But the light is taking the edge off the pain. The glow of the golden hour makes even me look good and I take some photos as I ride. It’s pleasant and I’m quite unexpectedly filled with a moment of acceptance. I will not beat the sun, and I will probably not beat my 15-hour goal, but I’m ok with that.
I’m ok with everything. I’m close enough to the finish to know that, baring any mechanicals, I have made it. I will finish this ride.
And then, there, another Kanza miracle. On the road ahead, some boys this time, set up with a cooler by the roadside. They’re squealing and nominating who’s gonna run out on the road.
I pull the empty bottle out of my jersey to make room for a new one.
“I’ll swap you,” I say, and I throw it to the ground near them. A boy holds out a bottle and I snatch at it like a total amateur, succeeding only in knocking it out of this hand. I sigh, and begin to slow. I really do need that water.
“No, don’t stop! I gotcha!” says another, and he runs up alongside to hand me a bottle as I ride. It’s a glorious moment of camaraderie and joy and thankfulness that would be expressed more eloquently had my brain been working. I just laugh and say thanks and hope the timbre of my voice holds all the emotion of the true appreciation I have for the gesture in that moment.
Their excited chatter fills my ears as I ride off, one inquiring of the other how he managed to make me drop the bottle. Of how he’d messed that up.
Believe me, boys. No one messed anything up. You are doing everything right.
That water saves me. I am saved.
Further on and although not dark enough yet to need a light, I turn it on should there be any oncoming traffic. It can’t be far to the end now.
Through the campus. Down the path.
“Four blocks to go!” I hear a voice say.
People begin to call out to me and I can see the lights of the finish up ahead.
I think I’m going to cry. Am I? No. Maybe? No. Now I’m very happy. It swells and bubbles in me. People are cheering me through, and now I hear my name and I’m in the chute and across the line and rolling to a stop and holding a finisher’s glass and there’s Dan and there’s Reba and I have Kanza brain so I can’t speak anything but gibberish and it’s mush and I’m dumb with it.
Dan and Reba. Look at them. I blurt out some dead-brain sentences. I can’t form words. Not the ones I want to say, anyway. Not the ones that express what I really mean. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want to say to them. What I need to say to them. What I’ve been thinking about on and off for at least that last 100 miles.
“How do you race this? I don’t understand.”
These are the words that leave my mouth. It’s as though my mind reviewed all the notes in my brain and picked the one that sounded most like ‘you crazy’.
I’m messing it up. It’s all messed up. I’m cocking it the cock up. What I am saying and using all the wrong words for is, what I’ve been thinking on and off all day long: I am amazed by you. You amaze me. I am in awe. You are awesome.
Rebecca takes my bike and I’m a rambling mess. I sit down. Take off my helmet. Sip from the beer Collin gave me at the finish.
Collin. He leans into my field of view again—he’s already hand delivered a fresh bottle of water—and asks if I need anything else.
“What can I get you? What do you need?”
There is such kindness in this question and I think, and maybe even say out loud ‘I love you right now’.
I love everyone right now. Seriously.
He brings me two. They are cold. So. Very. Cold. I stick one on the back of my neck.
I sit there for a long while. People come and go. I talk to The Langster, who’d been a participant in his own private Kanza war all day. I talk to Dan. People come and go from the tent. I feel janky and filthy and wipe the dirt from my face and look around at the party and the lights and just let the day wash all over me.
In short, I am baptized.
* * *
We. We are magnificent. We fight and rumble and spar and spin. We climb tall trees, swing from clotheslines, and shout from cathedral towers. Ninjas, fighters, dreamers, those who carry the torch of do and do again and do some more.
The chorus of our effort is loud and glorious. It rings through the halls and chambers and open prairies like a bell struck with a hard and honest hammer. Our splendor is the color of joy and love and hope and triumph and we do and have and will always pick ourselves up and start again.
Because we. We are magnificent.